Quotes For The Day

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“In this case, we did not adequately work with the advertiser to create a content program that was in line with our brand … To be clear, our decision to pull the campaign should not be interpreted as passing judgment on the advertiser [the Church of Scientology] as an organization. Where I believe we erred was in the execution of the campaign … One important note for everyone: casting blame on any group or any individual is both unfair and simply not what we do at The Atlantic. And we most certainly should not speak to the press or use social media to attack our organization or our colleagues. We are a team that rises and falls together,” – Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic.

“That ad was a mistake in both concept and execution. I am saying all of this as a loyal and long-time Atlantic employee but as an observer of rather than participant in this recent drama. (That is, I had nothing to do with any part of this: the origin of the ad, the decision to pull it, or the drafting of this statement,)” – Jim Fallows.

I’ll have more to say later on the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model of “sponsored content” which blew up the room at Buzzfeed last night. But here’s something worth clarifying.

There’s no reason to believe that the editors and editorial writers at these sites are involved in the sponsored content of their respective joints. The editorial writers are not the sponsored content writers. Jim Fallows would no more have written the ad copy for the Church of Scientology than make a guest appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The Buzzfeed review of PlayStation 4 – though jumbled next to sponsored content for PlayStation 4 – was written in obvious good faith, as I noted last night. In other words, I am not accusing journalists at those institutions of anything unethical.

I am accusing those institutions of pushing as far up to the line between advertorial and editorial as can be even remotely ethically justified. I am accusing them of now hiring writers for two different purposes: writing journalism and writing ad copy. Before things got this desperate/opportunistic, the idea of a magazine hiring writers to craft their clients’ ads rather than, you know, do journalism, would have been unimaginable. A magazine was not an ad agency. But the Buzzfeed/Atlantic model is to be both a journalism site and an ad agency. You can see the reason for the excitement. We can now write purely for corporate clients and that will pay for us to do the rest. And so a CEO at Chevron gets a by-line at the magazine that once gave us Twain and Thoreau.

More to the point, when an ad page is designed not even to be seen much on the site’s homepage – where the color shading helps maintain the distinction between ads and edit – and is deliberately purposed to be viral, to pop up alone on your screen with “Buzzfeed” at the top of the page and a layout identical to Buzzfeed’s, the deliberate attempt to deceive readers is impossible to miss.

Am I thinking readers are too dumb to notice the by-line? Aren’t they more sophisticated than that? No and yes, they’re sophisticated, but not the way an industry insider is. I’m merely noting that – to the eternal mortification of writers and reporters – readers don’t really care or notice whose by-line it is in a magazine or newspaper or website.  They can easily overlook them. The name Buzzfeed is exponentially larger on any single advertorial than the actual sponsor’s. If you get a single post on Ten Coolest Things On The Planet, and it’s as good or as funny as anything else on Buzzfeed, and is on Buzzfeed, and looks just like everything else on Buzzfeed, be careful to note the small print where it tells you you are reading propaganda from Halls. That’s their fig leaf.

They need a bigger, clearer one. Because they’re pulling a Britney right now.

Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd

A tour of tweets from last night’s debate:

Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad, Ctd

The debate at Buzzfeed really did become quite unusually passionate. I guess my taking on “native advertizing” and “sponsored content” in the belly of the company that has pioneered and thrived off them was a little provocative. But it was also huge fun and aired what I think we all could agree were salient issues that merit more discussion. I’ll be posting something tomorrow.

But meanwhile it behooves me to note that after before* my earlier post, Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein followed up with a stringent review of the PlayStation4, which you can read here. It’s not an ad. It’s a piece of thoughtful criticism. Which is a distinction I think Buzzfeed should begin to emphasize more (ever thought of adding the simple word “Advertisement” atop an advertisement that deliberately looks like the rest of the product?), or risk the impression that their “new” form of advertizing is actually just the oldest profession in the world.

*Technically Bernstein’s review went up a mere five minutes before my post, according to the timestamps.

Guess Which Buzzfeed Piece Is An Ad

Since I’m going to be discussing forms of new media revenue with Friend of the Dish, Ben Smith, later today, I though it might be worth noting some aspects of Buzzfeed’s innovative model, i.e. “sponsored content” or “native advertizing”. I should start by saying I’m not trying to criticize anyone who’s trying to make new media work financially. We don’t know what works and there are various options. But Buzzfeed’s model is a hot topic – as was the Atlantic‘s resort to “native advertizing” in the Scientology fuck-up.

So let’s take a specific example which caught my eye the other day. Here is Buzzfeed”s post on Sony’s Playstation 4 posted yesterday at 8.07 pm. Despite being billed as “The Only Post You Need To Read About The PlayStation 4,” it was actually preceded by this post on Buzzfeed the day before about the same event, titled “11 Things You Didn’t Know About PlayStation”. The difference is that the February 19 post was “sponsored” by PlayStation and the February 20 one was written by two staffers with by-lines. Go check them both out and see the differences (an off-white background and acknowledgment of the sponsor) and the similarities (in form, structure and tone, basically identical).

To my eye, the two are so similar in form and content, I have a few questions to ask of Ben later today: were the people who wrote the first Sony-sponsored post employed by Buzzfeed or Sony? Or was it a team effort? If it was a team effort, why no Buzzfeed by-lines? Or did the same people write both the promotional copy and the journalistic copy?

Now go a little deeper on the sponsored page about the PlayStation 4. Here’s a screen shot of what you see on the side:

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 12.04.18 PM

Were these sponsored or real?

The second post was put up on the same day as the first Sony-sponsored post, with the classic Buzzfeed headline: “10 Awesome Downloadable Games You May Have Missed”. But all of the posts in the sidebar above were sponsored by Sony, even though, as you can see, they are not distinguished as such. Once you slip into the advertorial vortex at Buzzfeed, everything that is advertizing appears as non-advertizing. Just keep clicking. When you’re on Buzzfeed proper (if that’s the right term), the sponsored posts are delineated, ethically, as I noted above, by an off-white color background that subtly makes them different and an acknowledgment of the sponsor.

So I don’t see an ethical line being definitively crossed here – just deliberately left very fuzzy. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but one core ethical rule I thought we had to follow in journalism was the church-state divide between editorial and advertizing. But as journalism has gotten much more desperate for any kind of revenue and since banner ads have faded, this divide has narrowed and narrowed. The “sponsored content” model is designed to obscure the old line as much as possible (while staying thisclose to the right side of the ethical boundary). It’s more like product placement in a movie – except movies are not journalism.

So my core worry is: who writes and composes these sponsored posts? Are they done in collaboration with Sony? Or does Sony do it all? Are any of the sponsored post writers also writing regular posts? If they are, what credibility does Buzzfeed have when actually reviewing PlayStation 4? By the way, here’s the end of their review:

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 1.29.54 PM

And so we get a tease for what might well be a future Sony-sponsored post. I have nothing but admiration for innovation in advertizing and creative revenue-generation online. Without it, journalism will die. But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?

Update: To read the rest of the posts in this thread, go here.

The Atlantic Apologizes

In a classy way – and they are reviewing the entire strategy. That’s great – and the swiftness and clarity of their apology does indeed, as my old friend TNC notes, show that their integrity endures. That matters to me because I deeply love the institution and respect its writers. But the more I have read about new advertizing strategies online the more relieved I am that we are trying – and trying is the best I can say so far – to stay out of this advertizing business.

Obviously sponsored content from Scientologists, with Atlantic employees systematically removing negative comments, is self-evidently awful. But I have to say I tend to agree with Pareene: why is the Church of Scientology more objectionable as “sponsored content” than, say, Shell or Intel or IBM? Here’s a video entirely provided by Shell:

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This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such – but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.

Here’s another screen shot that troubles me:

screenshot_atlantic

The author of the second article is one Martin Duggan. What’s his journalism background?

Martin Duggan is the vice president of market strategy, responsible for
driving strategic efforts across IBM’s Cúram product portfolio and
evaluating new markets. He has 20 years of social enterprise experience
working in a variety of delivery, strategy development, and consulting
roles and is viewed as a social services thought leader around the
globe.

On the same page, we have two other ads by IBM, an infographic by IBM, two more stories written by IBM, three links to IBM pages, and one IBM video. It’s made legit by a tiny box up top, which you have to roll over to find out that:

Sponsor content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.

Did IBM also provide the art? Then I went to Quartz, the company’s new global business site. Two out of the first ten pieces I saw on the main-page last night were written by corporations, Chevron and Cadillac, presumably in collaboration with the Atlantic. (The Cadillac has now gone, replaced by another identical Chevron “piece”.) I’d like to know as a subscriber and former senior editor who exactly on staff helped write those ads, and how their writing careers are different than that of regular journalists. Jay Lauf, for whom I have immense respect, said this about the strategy of “native ads” – or what I prefer to call enhanced advertorial techniques:

“A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines,
but I think it respects readers more. It’s saying, ‘You
know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that
way.”

Read this piece and see if you agree.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that readers do not expect great magazines to be artfully eliding the distinction between editorial and advertorial with boosterish ad campaigns from oil companies. Usually, those advertorials are in very separate sections in magazines – “Sponsored By The Government Of Dubai” or something – but integrating them in almost exactly the same type and in exactly the same format as journalism is not that.

I can understand companies sponsoring real journalism in inventive, dynamic, interactive ways. Magazines need advertizing to survive. I also understand how banner ads are useless for many big companies. I also realize that keeping the Atlantic alive requires herculean efforts in this tough climate. But please, please, please remember that the most important thing you have at the Atlantic is your core integrity as one of the great American magazines. I see no evidence the editorial staff has compromised that in any way and regard their writers and editors as role-models as well as journalists and friends. But there comes a time when the business side of a magazine has to be reminded that a magazine can very gradually lose its integrity in incremental, well-meant steps that nonetheless lead down a hill you do not want to descend. I know they are principled and honorable people there; and I know they understand this. But please know that this stuff makes an Atlantic reader grieve.